Issue 40 / 24 October 2011

THERE was much celebration when physicist Brian Schmidt won a Nobel Prize this month for his research into the expansion of the universe, and quite right too.

But does our focus on the Nobel lead us to neglect some of our other worthy research and science heroes?

A group of Melbourne neuroscientists recently won international recognition for their research into the effect of acute increase in urge to void on cognitive function in healthy adults.

Yes, they established that needing really, really badly to pee stops you thinking straight.

This groundbreaking medical research earned them an Ig Nobel Prize, the alternative to the Nobel designed to reward research achievements “that first make people laugh then make them think”.

Australia has a proud record in the Ig Nobels, with previous laureates recognised for identifying the best way to dunk a biscuit (Physics, 1999), calculating how many group photos need to be taken to ensure nobody has their eyes shut (Mathematics, 2006), and cataloguing the odours of 131 species of frogs under stress (Biology, 2005).

And who could forget Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s 2002 gong for his comprehensive survey of human belly button lint — who gets it, what colour and how much of it.

According to the latest Australian laureates, an extreme need to urinate causes at least as much cognitive deterioration as do other conditions known to be associated with increased risk of accident, such as elevated blood alcohol or fatigue.

They said their findings suggested the “magnitude of the cognitive decline associated with an extreme urge to void will raise accident risk in a manner similar to that expected with low levels of alcohol intoxication or following 24 hr of sustained wakefulness …”.

Although they cautioned larger, more representative studies were needed, the authors suggested their research could have implications for road and workplace safety.

Perhaps it’s about time we considered a new RBT program — random bladder testing. Police could pull over drivers observed jiggling at the lights and play a recording of running water to test their level of impairment.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are a mad, wonderful celebration of our inquisitive human nature.

Sure, you may wonder why anybody wanted to ask some of the research questions they reward, but the funny thing about the Ig Nobels is that they do actually deliver on their promise to make you think as well as laugh.

It might be hard to come up with a practical application for the catalogue of belly button lint, but at least one Ig Nobel laureate has gone on to win a real Nobel.

Russian Andre Geim, who won the physics prize last year for his work on the two-dimensional material graphene, had scored an Ig Nobel award 10 years earlier for using magnets to levitate a frog.

That’s the thing about research: you never know where it might lead. So let’s celebrate the noble achievements of all our laureates, no matter how bizarre they might seem.

And I’d like to make it clear that in focusing on the neuroscience of a full bladder, I did not mean to neglect the equally thought-provoking work of Australia’s other laureates in 2011, who discovered that a certain kind of male beetle will attempt to mate with beer stubbies.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 24 October 2011

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